Story time with Gilbert Arenas. It’s nearly 11 p.m. and he’s lying face down on a massage table in his Dallas hotel room. His lower body is bothering him again. His doctor says he needs to stretch more. His right knee aches, even though it’s the left one that crumbled and ruined his Hall of Fame chances. Also, it’s his groins—plural. Earlier this summer, playing pro ball for the first time in years, he pulled one and then the other almost immediately. Not the triumphant comeback he was looking for, and yet he’s in good spirits, as Arenas tends to be, obliging a question about his NBA rookie salary. His head is smushed against the horseshoe headrest, but that’s all right. Arenas is an animated storyteller.
“What had happened was,” he begins. The year was 2001, and Arenas was set to enter the NBA after two seasons at the University of Arizona. In his mind, he was a first-round pick; and if a thought exists in Arenas’ mind, he usually brings it into the real world. So he borrowed a loan expecting a first-round payday. Then, he says, “I bought my chain, bought my Escalade with the five TVs and the stereo system.” The audio equipment alone ran about $60,000. The chain, which bore Arenas’ initials, cost another $40,000. Draft night came. Arenas fell to the Warriors at No. 31 in a 30-team league.
“When I went 31,” Arenas says, “I got so mad that I threw the chain I bought out the window; gone.” Arenas’ second-round salary was something like $330,000, which was basically spent by the time he showed up at Golden State. Over his first two years in the league, Arenas’ budget was $400 per month.
“Imagine trying to be an NBA player for $400 per month,” he says. He rented a small apartment and took as much food as possible from the team plane. “Try going on a date in the middle of the month with $100 left. I got gas, I had two dogs and a girlfriend at the time. There was no date night! It was horrible.”
By his third season, everything had changed: Arenas secured a $60 million contract from the Wizards and became Agent Zero, Hibachi. How many players are good enough to carry two distinct nicknames? He was an electric scorer, but more than that, he was a novel point guard. His chief competitor for scoring crowns was Kobe Bryant, who proudly mimicked Michael Jordan. Arenas was more interested in where the league would head next. At 6’4″, “they didn’t know what to label him, but he changed the game,” says Jason Richardson, the 14-year NBA player who was a rookie with Arenas on the 2001-02 Warriors.
Arenas was the first player in NBA history to hit 200 threes and 600 free throws in a season, a blueprint for James Harden‘s approach today—and he’s happy to tell you about it. Arenas pulled up from Damian Lillard range a decade before Lillard. He was on his way to a third-straight season of 80-plus games and a ton of points, when, in April 2007, a player rolled into his leg. His meniscus tore. He never recovered, and his career ended in 2012.
He is a what-if player on par with Brandon Roy, Penny Hardaway and Grant Hill. Had he continued on, “Gil is legitimately one of the illest point guards probably to ever touch a ball,” says DeShawn Stevenson, whose 13-year career included three-plus seasons with Arenas on the Wizards.
Arenas still hasn’t watched the fateful play, but he’s able to reflect on its impact with clarity and poise. He is not somebody who thinks too hard about the past, nor is he afraid to discuss it. “I just didn’t have a full career,” he says. “Some people can’t move on because they can’t let go.” He’s laughing a little bit, as he often does when addressing heavy matters. “You gotta let it go and keep moving. It wasn’t meant. Keep going, keep fighting for something else.”
These days, at 37, Arenas is awfully busy anyway. During the week, he trains three or four times per day, sometimes with the next generation of stars. He has five children, and the oldest two are entering the AAU circuit, much to his delight. “My daughter’s very athletic, got super genes,” he says. “My son is more skilled. I love when they play one-on-one.” Arenas has worked with fellow players’ children, too, like Bronny James. (“The only person that’s gonna challenge LeBron’s stats is the next one coming,” he says. “He’s a super freak.”)
He also hosts The No Chill Podcast, which he started about a year ago. Within a month, it had cracked the top 100 among sports podcasts. At one point recently, it held the top spot. The podcast is nothing if not entertaining—it delivers the odd, the overly personal, the basketball savvy.
During a recent episode with Dwight Howard, Arenas talked about the challenges of monogamy in the NBA (“I couldn’t do it. I tried for like two weeks,” he said. “I was like, let me try this new me. Naw—it’s stupid.”), plus offered insight into Howard’s bizarre career and Stan Van Gundy’s flaws as a coach.
A piece of his episode with Lou Williams recently went viral as Arenas slammed old-timers who look down on today’s game. “They have no idea about evolution,” Arenas said. He detests talking-head retirees who declare that their generation was superior to the current one. His respect for today’s players is a welcome relief.
Perhaps he loves the modern game because he helped craft it; perhaps it’s because he still plays it. This summer, Arenas has revived his old No. 0 uniform in the BIG3 league, now in its third season. He had a good deal of rust to shake off at first—hence the double groin strains.
In recent years, he says, “I’d go to the gym but I really didn’t do nothing. I was at that point where it’s like, why am I still doing this?” Arenas missed the perks that came with being a pro: the competition, the camaraderie, the trash talk, the pressure, the strategy. The BIG3 offered all of those…plus an opportunity to show the world that Agent Zero could still hoop.
It’s mid-August and American Airlines Arena is packed. The Mavericks home floor has been cut in half to accommodate the BIG3’s dimensions. It’s the final weekend of the regular season, during which the league moves its act from city to city throughout the summer. It is here to entertain; to evoke sweet nostalgia; to answer the question: What ever happened to that guy? Greg Oden is here, and Eddy Curry, and high-flyers who couldn’t score, and college standouts who couldn’t stick, and cult heroes, too—members of the We Believe Warriors and the turn of the century, head-tapping Clippers.
Arenas’ team—the Enemies—is out of playoff contention, and yet their mascot marches triumphantly through the crowd. It’s a gorilla, which is confusing to coach Rick Mahorn, who thinks it should be a pirate. The mascot was Arenas’ idea, which is probably why the sign it’s raising has nothing to do with the Enemies but is in fact a promo for The No Chill Podcast.
Meanwhile, Arenas is readying himself in the locker room tunnel. He straps a spandex belt around his waist, and a microphone transmitter to the belt, and wires himself: He’ll be recording a live podcast as he plays. He throws on his jersey—”Hibachi,” No. 0—though jerseys with “Agent” above the 0 are available for sale as well.
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images
Indeed, no BIG3 team has the marketing power of Arenas’ Enemies. The mascot is the only one in the league, and the full Enemies experience is documented on the team’s Instagram page, which stands alone across the BIG3.
“We’re the Lakers. That’s how I look at it,” Arenas says. “We are what everyone should be looking at, with how we maneuvered our business.”
Unfortunately, the Enemies’ on-court product is lagging behind.
As Mahorn says: “We have the nicest jerseys, but we play like shit.”
Arenas is still dealing with the effects of multiple significant injuries. There is the left knee, of course, but also damage in the right one. Around the end of his career, his “good” knee began to swell, but Arenas couldn’t bear another surgery. The issue faded and then returned in 2016. “It was so stupid,” he says, and demonstrates what happened.
He was out bowling one night, and as he went to grab a ball before each turn, he’d accidentally bang his knee against the tunnel where the ball arrives. Arenas is laughing retelling the story. “It just like, tore,” he says.
Meanwhile, the challenge is not only physical. “Mentally, I’m still the guy, it’s just breaking down all the shit that’s in between—it’s that layer of, I haven’t done it in six years,” he says. “It’s like riding a bike, but I used to do marathons. I could get on a bike and pedal around the block, but this is a marathon.”
His responsibilities extend beyond the court. As the Enemies’ captain, Arenas is also its general manager. Earlier this summer, he chose to assemble what he calls a “revenge team.”
His first moves were to tap two co-captains: Lamar Odom and Perry Jones III, who had been a top recruit at Baylor before troublesome knees wrecked his NBA career. Through the BIG3 draft, Arenas chose Royce White, the former first-round pick who challenged the NBA’s mental health policies and says he’s being blackballed for it.
Odom was dismissed by the league after the season’s first game, which left Arenas with an open roster spot. He tried to sell his old teammate and friend Nick Young on the position but couldn’t close the deal. Then it was Michael Beasley, a buddy since Arenas’ days in D.C., but he declined after receiving a pro offer from China.
Before the BIG3 trade deadline, which does exist, Arenas had a chance to strike a deal with Mike Bibby’s team, Ghost Ballers. Arenas was looking to acquire an extra ball-handler—guard Chris Johnson—but Bibby demanded White in return. “I said ooh, aah!” Arenas says, contorting his face, still pained by the memory. “I didn’t want to pull the trigger on our team.”
After opening 3-1, the Enemies fell apart down the stretch, which Arenas owns. “Everyone made upgrades but we stayed the same,” he says regretfully. Arenas vows that next year will be different. “You know me,” he says. “I have tricks up my sleeve.”
In April 2006, the Wizards met LeBron James and the Cavs in the first round. Cleveland took a 3-2 lead into Game 6, played on Arenas’ home floor.
Washington trailed by three in the waning seconds, when Arenas calmly drilled a 30-something-footer to tie the game, a shot that has been lost to history. The more famous moment came late in overtime, with the Wizards leading by a point. Arenas stepped to the line. James approached him.
“He said, ‘If you miss these, it’s game over,'” Arenas says now. Arenas missed both. Damon Jones knocked down an open look on the other end, and the series was over. That night, Arenas says, he stayed in the gym for untold hours, shooting some 2,000 free throws.
Mark Duncan/Associated Press
He returned the following year at the top of his game.
On April 3, 2007, he poured in 33 points in 39 minutes, his 35th 30-point game of the year. On April 4, he played two minutes before hitting the deck, writhing in pain with the torn meniscus. Arenas had never been injured before; in the following months, he rushed to return to form.
“I didn’t respect the injury,” he says. “I’m sitting there just trying to go—let’s go, there’s no time, Kobe’s out there working.” Players can recover from that injury (Russell Westbrook is a recent example), but Arenas played only 19 games over the next two years, inking an $111 million extension in between.
Improbably, Arenas started the 2009-10 season strong, but in December, well, he figures you already know the story. The short of it is that he brought four unloaded guns into the Wizards locker room. Two weeks later, in an attempt to make light of it, he waved phantom pistols in the Wizards’ pregame huddle. He was suspended indefinitely. Meanwhile, he faced charges for unlawful possession of a firearm, for which he spent 30 days in a halfway house.
Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images
His career entered a free fall; his legacy in D.C. was badly tarnished.
“The thing that hurt the most was, you do a hundred things right and one thing wrong, they harp on the one thing wrong,” Arenas says. “No matter how they used my name, it was, ‘locker room gun thing.’ ‘He saved 10 babies from a burning building!’ ‘Yeah, the guy who brought a gun into the locker room.'”
Five years earlier, Arenas had in fact supported a boy who’d lost his family and home in a D.C. fire— mentoring him and bringing him on as a Wizards ball boy. That was just one of many local lives he touched as a Wizard.
Within the organization, teammates admired Arenas’ humility and sense of duty as a franchise player. “He has a big heart, he loves everybody, down to the 15th person,” Stevenson says. During the 2004-05 season, just one year removed from life as an athlete without disposable income, Arenas successfully lobbied team owner Abe Pollin to build a players’ lounge and hire a chef. In 2007, Arenas donated $100 per point scored at home to Scores for Schools, a program he founded. (Pollin matched him during road games.) When Arenas negotiated his extension with Washington in 2008—the deal that would later make him a punchline and an albatross—he left $16 million on the table so the team could improve its roster.
“That’s just Gil,” Richardson says. To the outside world, the gun incident defined Arenas; to those who knew him, it was an outlier. “A lot of people don’t understand that it was an era when we didn’t broadcast when we did good for people,” Richardson adds. He thinks back to Arenas playing pickup basketball with local kids long before that sort of thing became Instagram fodder and a branding tool. “He was always helping the kids,” Richardson says. “He’s the type of person that was always giving without wanting any of the attention.”
Still, Arenas hasn’t always made it easy for the public to forgive or embrace him. “He does a lot of things that kinda blind who he is,” Stevenson says.
Arenas’ presence on social media, for instance, has often been crude and offensive. In 2011, he briefly opened a Twitter account and fired off dozens of tweets along the lines of this one: “#youknowyouugly if ur a SINGLE MOTHER…lmaoooooooo sorry but thats funny.” In short order, he was fined by the league and shut down the account.
A couple years back, he took to Instagram, where he now has 769,000 followers. (His daughter tried to follow him, but he blocked her.) In keeping with his personality and his podcasts, his feed is a busy mix of takes, but some of his posts have been demeaning toward women. His posts about the WNBA in 2015 drew national coverage and responses from WNBA players. And as recently as March, he drew attention for, in a vulgar post, blaming Khloe Kardashian for Tristan Thompson cheating on her.
Arenas has also posted about the locker room gun incident. He made a meme himself, photoshopping a Nike ad with its trademark swoosh and slogan. Above it, he wrote: “Don’t be afraid to bring a strap into the locker room just to prove a point.”
Why push those boundaries—or mention the event at all—in a public space? “I can take the power away by making fun of it,” Arenas says. “There’s no power to it because I laughed at it so much, you can’t use it anymore.”
Lately, he mostly posts about the BIG3, though on Wednesday he hopped in a hot debate with Devin Booker about pickup basketball etiquette. Arenas’ account offers the full Arenas experience, and maybe even an honest look at him.
“You have to be human,” he says. “I just say what I want, do what I feel. It works better.”
The Enemies’ season finale begins in Dallas, and Arenas looks mostly like himself. His goatee is still crisp, and his jumper is too. He wears No. 0 well, even at a few pounds over his old playing weight. There are signs of aging, of course: He’s slow-footed on defense and only plays in short bursts. He spends much of the game on the bench, analyzing the action for his podcast. The team’s offense mostly runs through Perry Jones III and Royce White.
Arenas is committed to the league for at least one more year. Naturally, he has ideas on how it can improve. He wants to buy the Enemies, for one, but BIG3 teams aren’t individual franchises just yet. He wants to raise the competition level, too, and he’s taken that idea up the ladder, to commissioner Ice Cube himself.
Arenas told him, “You gotta understand, this is what your vision looks like: a retired league of your favorite players—Iverson, me, Kobe, Dirk. We’re broken, playing this rugged streetball style.” He laughs at the thought of it. “Players that’s out of shape, fat, heavier, just banging and muscling and tussling—that doesn’t look as appealing as you would think.”
Arenas wants to lower the age minimum from 27 to 25 and invite G-Leaguers to play. He worries about those players, earning some $35,000 per season and lacking a place to showcase themselves in the summer. BIG3 captains earn $12,000 per game, and regular players earn $10,000. Why not cut the G-Leaguers in?
Bring on the youthful competition, he thinks. He’s Gilbert Arenas, one of the great scorers of our time. He’ll spend the upcoming year tailoring his game to the BIG3’s odd style, heavy on drives to the rim and four-point bombs. “Now I know how to train for it,” he says, “so next year becomes much easier, and I can sit there and just dominate.”
Yes, Agent Zero will rise again. He just needs to stretch first.